Melchora Aquino: The Old Lady the Spaniards Couldn’t Break
Over 120 years ago on August 29, 1896, the Spaniards on suspicion of collaborating with Filipino rebels forcefully arrested Melchora Aquino at her home. She was 84 years old at the time. They were right, of course. But Melchora, affectionately called Tandang Sora, was a collaborator and never a member of the Katipunan. The Spaniards thought they could pressure the frail woman into divulging information about the rebels, but they were most mistaken.
The Origin of the Name Tandang Sora
These days, any mention of Tandang Sora evokes images of a busy boulevard in Quezon City. But the name was actually a form of endearment used by Andres Bonifacio and his Katipuneros to call Melchora. It derives from two words: matanda (old person) and Sora, a contraction of how they pronounced Melchora (Melsora). Back in those days, attaching “Matanda” to a name was considered respectful, acknowledging a person’s wisdom and seniority, as opposed to its modern usage that often offends people because of insinuations of senility, inutility, and loss of vigor. But Melchora, even in her advanced years, was far from senile or inutile. She was a vigorous enabler of the Revolution, using her wealth and resources to further its cause.
The Young Melchora Was a Captivating Beauty
Many envision Melchora Aquino as an old, hunched woman whose face is telling of the passage of years. Not many people know that when she was younger, she captivated her entire town with her beauty.
As a young maiden, Melchora was often chosen to portray Reyna Elena during Santacruzan on feasts of Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May). Santacruzan is the religious ritual held on the last day of Flores de Mayo in honor of Empress Helena of Constantinople who allegedly found the True Cross, remnants of the wood on which Jesus was crucified.
By tradition, young and beautiful maidens were selected to portray Reyna Elena who would walk in procession around town while reciting prayers in honor of the Blessed Virgin.
Apart from her beauty, Melchora was also a talented singer. She would often perform at local fiestas, parties, and plays. She also sang at church.
Melchora Came from a Family of Means
Although Melchora never went to school, she was a person who was born into a family of means. Her parents managed a farm, which she inherited along with other business interests. She would not have been able to support the Katipunan had she been poor. She was no donya, but she powered the Katipunan with all the resources she could muster, and that proved enough.
She also lived in a decent house in an area that is now Balintawak in Quezon City. The house was large enough to accommodate several dozen guests. It also had a sprawling yard.
In fact, she hosted 1,000 men in her home’s yard during the Cry of Balintawak. This was just one of the numerous material things she offered to the Katipunan to further its cause.
Melchora as an Enabler of the Katipunan
Like many Filipinos at the time, Melchora found livelihood in farming. Her parents were farmers, and so was she. When she was older, she married Fulgencio Ramos, who was cabeza de barangay, one of the few government posts that Filipinos could hold. Together, they had six children.
Fulgencio died shortly after their sixth was born, leaving Melchora to raise them all on her own. Although she never received a formal education, she was very intelligent and was literate at a very early age. With the grit she learned from her farmer parents, she made sure that all her children received the proper schooling she never had. Many years later, her children would help her with her livelihood, some of whom would become supporters and members of the Katipunan.
As a farmer herself, Melchora was emphatic with many of her countrymen who were heavily taxed and often made to pay for fiestas in honor of various saints.
The hardships she endured as a single mother only bolstered her resolve to support the Katipunan, to which she sacrificed almost everything in her possession: her house and even her children.
Her home became one of the headquarters of the Katipunan, where revolutionaries would frequently hold secret meetings. Bonifacio also frequented her home and sought her advice and wisdom.
Although she was not a member of the secret society, her very close connection with Bonifacio and the Katipunan meant that she had a very deep knowledge of many of their most sensitive plans and operations. She also knew many of Bonifacio’s group quite well, including his top officers. They were like sons to her. She protected them very fiercely.
To these men, she provided food, shelter, and medical care using her own resources. She also provided crucial aid to its members by giving 100 sacks of rice and 10 carabaos, the cost of which were more several years’ worth of wages.
The Old Lady They Couldn’t Break
In 1896, the Katipunan was discovered by the Spanish colonial government, thanks to the confessions of one of its members to a Spanish priest. The discovery prompted Andres Bonifacio to launch the Revolution during the Cry of Balintawak. Melchora Aquino was there, supporting them. But it also marked the start of sufferings that she would undergo in the hands of the Spaniards.
The confession of Teodoro Patino resulted in the Spaniards raiding everything that had connections with the secret society. They raided hideouts, printing presses, and houses, not leaving a stone unturned. They confiscated secret documents, maps, and plans of the Revolution. One of the casualties of the discovery was 84-year-old Melchora, who paid heavily for her actions.
The Spaniards immediately targeted the old woman. They knew that she was a top figure who knew intricate details of the Katipunan’s plans: its members, its officers, its hideouts, its financers, how it operated, and more.